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Happy Birthday John Cheever! Where to Start With His Work

John Cheever may have been known as the “Chekhov of the suburbs” — Chekhov being an appellation applied to any superlative short story writer — but what he was best at was a sort of tight, realistic look at life’s mundanities, a hyper-awareness of all the posturing and jockeying that goes into our daily interactions, and how it can all be blown up by moments of transcendence and magic. He was an original, and there’ve been few writers since who have figured out how to apply the strangeness and grace that makes his best stories sing.

We’re two years past Cheever’s centennial — he was born on May 27th, 1912, and lived a long and fruitful life before his death in 1982. While he’s been gone for thirty-plus years, his literary legacy still lingers. Perhaps some of that was due to Blake Bailey’s wonderful biography, Cheever: A Life, published in 2009, the sort of book that is so thorough that it makes Cheever seem as if he’s everywhere. (Fun facts learned: Cheever worked for the WPA, and he lived in Manhattan where Walker Evans took a photo of his room as an example of Depression-era poverty.)

But I think a lot of it comes from the fact that Cheever is the closest thing that Mad Men has to a spirit animal. In his life and in his work, Cheever was a faker, a man trying very hard to fit into a box, and completely aware of it. His spirit infuses the edges of Don Draper’s American story. References abound, of course: Don and Betty lived on Bullet Park Lane — Bullet Park was the title of one of Cheever’s later novels — in Ossining, New York, the suburb where Cheever lived for much of his life.

I think Cheever would be delighted to see where Matt Weiner is taking Don Draper, and the flights of profound beauty and weirdness that color Mad Men. To celebrate the writer’s 102nd birthday properly, one should probably get ready for a bracing early-summer swim and a nice fine drink of gin for afterwards, with these books in tow.

John Cheever Falconer

Falconer

You need to work up to Falconer, but it’s weird Cheever in a nutshell. Inspired by the time he spent teaching at Sing Sing, Falconer is a novel about a college professor and drug addict serving time in prison for fratricide. But really it’s about everything, and it’s one of the times that Cheever, who was closeted for much of his life (his sexuality being the source of much angst in his journals and biographies), wrote fully about a romantic relationship between two men.

The Swimmer

“The Swimmer,” The Stories of John Cheever

If you get one book by John Cheever, it needs to be The Stories of John Cheever. It has some of his most famous, devastating work, including “The Enormous Radio” and “Goodbye, My Brother.” But “The Swimmer” is, for good reason, the masterpiece. It’s about a man going home in the suburbs, with a neat trick: he’ll swim his way through the backyard pools. But with that start, it becomes so much more.

The story has lived a long life. It became a surreal 1968 film with Burt Lancaster. There’s a recording of Cheever himself reading it at the 92Y, which is basically the author butchering his own work with his unique yawp of a voice, but it’s worth listening to for a second, if only to hear how Cheever fashioned some sort of Boston Brahmin/educated Englishman hybrid out of his natural hometown penchant for Mark Wahlberg-esque vowels.

the washout chronicle

The Wapshot Chronicle

A good place to begin for the average Cheever reader, The Wapshot Chronicle feels like a novel-from-life (because plot, what is plot? not for WASPS), following the highs and lows of the Wapshots of St. Botolphs (a stand-in for towns south of Boston and the New England of Cheever’s mind), as they make their way in a world not particularly amenable to their quirky WASP ways. It’s funny and meandering, given to moments of extreme beauty: the mystery of Cheever’s writing in a nutshell.

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